A Universe Bereft of All Signposts

November 7, 2010

Gabriel Josipovici, Whatever Happened to Modernism? New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Jennifer Mitchell

51nu2KcgC2LReading this book over several months was not long enough. I took advantage of the requirement to concentrate this book demands to breathe slowly and allow myself to re read and re read again Josipovici’s carefully crafted phrasing. To take on this book requires a certain appreciation for the historical and persistent presence of modernism in literature and art. Josipovici does not take his readers through a mundane history of modernist literature. Rather, he draws them seductively and skillfully into certain key moments within certain creative struggles by certain writers, and asks them to enjoy with him the particular pleasure, and pain, of uncertainty.

It is the complex and terrible beauty of these moments that, once recognised for their intangibility, assume for Josipovici the essence of the modernist project – or rather, it’s necessary crisis. He strains towards each successive articulation with the same sense of yearning for the words to express the inexpressible employed by the writers whose work he explores. But where modern writers sought to render visible the alienation and suffering of a single character, or of a whole generation, Josipovici seeks to explain why the modernist project was, and is still, the benchmark of worthwhile art.

The uncertainties modernist writers and artists articulated in their work were not easily expressed, nor easily accepted by critics, or, indeed, by the writers themselves. Kafka wrote to Max Brod about his work in 1909: ‘each word, even before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side’ and ‘the phrases positively fall apart in my hands’ (4). This uncertainty, even fearfulness about expression is partly what gives the works discussed in this book their essentially modernist credentials.

To understand modernism one must understand what came before. The modern is only modern in relation to it’s predecessor. Josipovici quotes Roland Barthes: ‘to be modern is to know that which is not possible anymore’ (139). If one cannot stay still or go back – if history or the loss of certainty or fascism or emptiness of spirit or pain cannot be borne – one must go forward. But into what? What if there is no language for the future? What if the ways words have been arranged in the past no longer fulfill the needs of the present? Then one is silenced. Or one struggles to speak in a new as yet unknown language.

A major aspect of what Josipovici describes as the crisis of modernism is this lack of reliable means modern artists and writers have to express their helplessness. In whichever era ‘the modern’ can be argued to exist – anywhere from the Renaissance to World War Two and beyond – the common thread is the fading away of some former means of certainty in expressing an understanding about the world. When the modern emerges, traditions, old world orders and religious certainties have been swept away by tides of enlightenment thinking, science, humanism: new ways of thinking and acting. The modern also has to grapple with the vacuum left by that which has been lost or surpassed. The modern artist comes to see “A universe for the first time bereft of all signposts” (92). Josipovici explores how modern artists, writers and composers – like Mallarme, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Beckett, Kafka, Picasso, and Stravinsky – seek for a new voice to express the experience of a new, signless time with images or sounds that had not been seen or heard before. This is what makes modern art the opposite of “Art” as a recognisable category. It cannot help but be original in its moment of creation as it is born out of a unique experience of struggle. Josipovici argues strongly that modern art does not depict the struggle for a path through the new array of choice born from the loss of old certainties – but that it IS the struggle. It doesn’t represent life – it is itself alive.

For me, the most powerful connection Josipovici makes to illustrate this vitality is that between the crisis of modernism and the philosophical writing of Søren Kierkegaard. By first linking this nineteenth century religious thinker with another famous Dane, Hamlet, we get a sense of the role Kierkegaard’s work will play. The plethora of choices available to a young intellectual in a world of crumbling certainties can lead to melancholy and inaction (43). The crisis of modernism for Kierkegaard was anxiety: ‘Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom’ (44). So many possibilities were made available by the loss of tradition, but it was equally anxiety-making to be floating so freely, no longer guided by the past. But to be harnessed to the chains of tradition, repetition of past patterns and the certainties of a responsible life was to be swallowed up by necessity. Thus, Kierkegaard says ‘necessity’s despair is to lack possibility’. Josipovici then reminds readers of the companion dialectic which the crisis of modernism evokes: ‘possibility’s despair is to lack necessity’ (46). In between these positions, as between all the tensions which make up the fabric of modernism, lies the abyss.

Josipovici only looks briefly at D.H. Lawrence, but when I consider the tensions at the heart of this book, I’m reminded of a passage from Lawrence’s novel St Mawh. The well-to-do daughter in the story who regularly goes out to ride her horse, St Mawh, is suddenly overcome with the boredom and futility of her petty existence, and she pleads to her mother: ‘I’ve got to live. And the thing that is offered me as life just starves me, starves me to death. Mother … I want the wonder back again, or I shall die’. When all that is left to an artist, writer or musician is to mimic his or her predecessors, to rehash the old ways, there is no life in the enterprise. It is a dead thing. The voices of modernist artists aimed to articulate this loss of traditional certainty, to grieve for it at the same time as they tried to formulate a phrase to express what might lie beyond. They reach back as they reach forward across the abyss which surrounds them, and their art is the expression of this suspended, trembling moment.

There might well be readers of this book for whom Josipovici’s later chapters, complaining about the unoriginality of contemporary realist fiction writers, will be viewed as unfair perfectionism. But to Josipovici, gritty realism can drift easily into an impoverished spirit closed to possibility, and cynically predisposed to distrust romanticism of all kinds: ‘All of them ultimately come out of Philip Larkin’s overcoat’ he opines (174). The Britons are marked out for particular scorn as anti-European and tending towards philistinism, but Josipovici owns his partiality proudly. For him, most realist fiction is distanced from intensity and immediacy. It is mere repetition lacking in courage.

When we stand in a gallery before a painting in the modern tradition and ask ourselves, maybe derisively, ‘but what does it mean?’ that moment of incomprehension is the meaning. It is alive because of it’s inchoate quality. Our confusion in some ways mirrors the abyss the artist confronts in his or her effort to be heard and understood. When Prufrock says ‘I have heard the mermaids singing each to each, I do not think that they will sing to me,’ Josipovici remarks that ‘because they weren’t singing to him, he is in the unenviable position of having to live with the sense that what would give meaning to his life is there, but just out of earshot’ (126). The paintings on the walls whisper together, but we can’t make out the conversation unless we take the time to open ourselves to doubt, and to possibility. The modern is expression born and articulated on the edge, turning regretfully away from the loss of certainty, while straining towards something still out of reach. Thus it sings, and shimmers, and lives.

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